08 Apr 2020 or the year we lived in danger
Exactly one month after the cancellation of Cesco Week Santiago 2020, an event that 23 years ago brought together the community that integrates the global copper industry in the city of Santiago, it feels as if a whole life had passed in just four weeks.
At that time, the cancellation was not considered as an event of force majeure, but only as a precautionary measure in the face of the difficulty of transfer for a significant part of the industry; mainly companies from China, Japan and South Korea. Today, the whole world is witnessing the sad situation in countries like Italy, Spain or the United States, and awaits the arrival of the peak of contagion to their lands, wishing they were not on the list of people who will require a respirator.
We never glimpsed the rapid expansion of the pandemic and its impact on the normal life of people in all latitudes. Today, the world is on the brink of a deep recession, where the main economies are announcing unprecedented aid packages to lessen the cessation of the flow of money and total paralysis of activities and, incidentally, lessen the social impact of this health crisis.
According to some leaders in the copper industry, this is the most complex crisis that has touched them in their professional lives. And it probably is. It is the first time that our generation has to face a global health crisis, where the main affected is the individual in all dimensions of their lives.
Let’s start with the dimension of work. In mining operations the activity takes place non-stop, 365 days a year, in a continuous process of working day and night shifts in which thousands of people live in camps. Not surprisingly, most operations had already banned visits to their facilities by the end of February, as one of the first steps in light of the announcement of the first cases of Coronavirus outside China. The management of own and contractor workers has been among the main challenges, to maintain operational continuity, avoiding the entry and spread of the virus within the sites, guaranteeing safe working conditions, a top priority for the sector. They have had to adjust operations to reduce the provisions to a minimum, paralyzing projects and exhaustively monitoring the transfer between shifts. All these measures are not minor in terms of logistics if we consider that it is a universe of approximately 800,000 people between direct and indirect employment, many of whom live in different regions of the country.
In the market’s dimension, we see a drastic drop in the price of copper as a result of the slowdown in the Chinese economy, Chile’s main client in the industry, but also in the main economies of the world. At the end of January, Cochilco was projecting a price of USD 2.85 c/l for the current year, correcting the downward projection last week to just USD 2.4 c/l. Only four mining operations in Chile have production costs below USD 2.2 c/l, so margins have been drastically adjusted for most of the country’s operations.
Another important dimension, in the case of most of the private mining companies in Chile, is the drastic decrease in the price of the shares of the large mining operators, as a result of the desperate search for liquidity by fearful investors before the pandemic. In the case of public mining, Codelco specifically, the arrest of structural projects to take care of the savings bank threatened by a low price of copper and an owner who demands the delivery of all resources for social spending.
On the near horizon are issues such as living conditions in mining regions, the possible increase in the taxation of the sector to a State that is thirsty for fresh resources to handle the emergency, the delay of investment projects and the uncertainty of the day to day, since we still do not know how long we will be in the fight against a virus that in four weeks changed our lives.